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Sir James MacMILLAN (b. 1959)
Stabat Mater (2016) [54:48]
The Sixteen
Britten Sinfonia/Harry Christophers
Latin text & English translation included
rec. 31 October & 1 November 2016, June 2014 (plainsong), Church of St Augustine, Kilburn, London. DDD
CORO COR16150 [59:47]

James MacMillan is a committed Roman Catholic and it’s scarcely surprising, therefore, that the Passion and Resurrection of Christ should be so central to his life and music. In an essay that’s reproduced in the booklet he muses that “I seem to have been circling around these few days in history for some years.” That’s something of an understatement because several of his key works have been directly inspired by the events of Holy Week. The earliest of which I’m aware is Seven Last Words from the Cross (1993) (review). It was experiencing this work both live and on disc that really fired my interest in this composer. Between 1996 and 1997 he produced the orchestral Triduum, an Easter triptych, comprising The World’s Ransoming, the Cello Concerto and the Symphony ‘Vigil’. All three of these works were recorded by Osmo Vänskä and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (BIS-CD-989 and BIS-CD-990). MacMillan has made two settings of the Passion: the St John Passion (2008) (review) and the more recent St Luke Passion (2012-13) (review). I’ve read that it is his intention to set the Passion Gospels of all four evangelists in which case we may hope for settings of the narratives of St Mark and St Matthew in due course. In addition to all these works which address the Passion of Christ there is a more recent work which continues the story after the Crucifixion: Since it was the Day of Preparation (2012) (review).

Against that background it was probably inevitable that one day he would set the Stabat Mater to music. As he says, he grew up with the text, singing it as a hymn at school and then in his local church as a boy. The poem is generally attributed to the thirteenthcentury Franciscan friar, Jacoponi da Todi. It’s a long poem of twenty three-line stanzas. Not all composers have set the complete text but MacMillan does and he divides his piece up into four sections, each consisting of five stanzas. The forces required – choir and string orchestra – are similar to those specified for Seven Last Words from the Cross though there are two main differences between the two works. One is that there are several important passages in the Stabat Mater for solo voices from within the choir; to the best of my recollection this is not the case with the earlier work. Furthermore, the solos in Stabat Mater are challenging in the extreme. That brings me to the second major point of difference: though I haven’t seen scores of either work and am relying upon what I hear I think the new piece is even more demanding of both the singers and the players than was Seven Last Words from the Cross. For this recording The Sixteen are somewhat augmented: 26 singers are used (8/6/6/6). The string orchestra is 22-strong (6/6/4/4/2).

Before discussing the music and performance it will be appropriate to mention how the new piece came into being. As Harry Christophers reminds us in the booklet, the collaboration between The Sixteen and MacMillan goes back some years. The first piece that he wrote for them, in 2001, was his wonderful tribute to the Scottish composer, Robert Carver (1485-1570), O Bone Jesu. That was followed in 2009 by a superb setting of the Miserere. Both works are included on a very fine Coro CD (COR16096). The Stabat Mater builds on that partnership but also involves an important additional collaborator in the shape of John Studzinski’s Genesis Foundation. The Foundation has already made possible the composition of three notable settings of the text, in whole or in part, all three of which Christophers and his choir have recorded on a disc entitled Spirit, Strength and Sorrow (review). The Foundation is also behind the composition of MacMillan’s piece. It was premiered by the present forces in London in October 2016. Unfortunately that concert wasn’t covered by Seen and Heard but Simon Thompson attended the recent Scottish premiere, which took place in March 2017. Simon made clear in his review how impressed he was by the new piece and now that I’ve heard it through this recording I share his admiration.

On this CD MacMillan’s work is most effectively prefaced by the plainsong Stabat Mater. This, I’m certain, is the same recording that was heard on Spirit, Strength and Sorrow.

It takes some time to come to terms with a work of this nature and I’m by no means sure that I’m there yet. As befits the text he is setting MacMillan’s music is often lacerating, even graphic, in its intensity. However, what impressed me just as much is how often there’s genuine beauty in the writing, even though some of those passages are brief in duration. Often these graphic and beautiful passages sit cheek by jowl. An example of this comes in the second section. The words ‘Eia mater, fons amoris’ are sung to impassioned music by the tenors while the sopranos wail in anguish and the basses shout words from the text (track 3, 6:43). Immediately after, however, the choral writing at ‘Fac, ut tecum lugeam’ (7:35) has an extraordinary, quiet beauty and this gives way to a radiant violin solo over a hushed string accompaniment. The contrast is riveting.

The first movement begins with a long orchestral prelude: the choir doesn’t start singing until 4:47. MacMillan starts from near inaudibility but his writing for the strings grows rapidly in intensity: the music is tense and grief-stricken; at times I had a sense of searching in darkness. The choral writing, once it begins, evidences great sadness. Eventually, at around 7:50 we hear a keening, very moving soprano solo (Julie Cooper). Hereabouts the singing is absolutely gripping but, then, it is throughout the performance.

In the third section, ‘Sancta mater, istud agas’ those opening words are sung at the outset, unaccompanied; this phrase becomes a refrain which is powerful at any dynamic level. At ‘Crucifixi fige plagas’ a quartet of solo tenors is heard (4:18). Their music is plangent and complex, the lines intertwining, and these singers, with support from the rest of the choir, declaim most of the rest of the text in this section. There’s another example of Macmillan’s dramatic use of contrast towards the end of this movement. We hear a harsh, frenetic passage of violin “scrubbing”, reminiscent of Penderecki at his most strident and dissonant. Immediately after this (track 4, 9:24) the basses sing ‘Virgo virginum praeclara’ quietly and prayerfully. Their music is slowmoving, almost like plainchant with extended note values.

At the start of the final section, ‘Fac, ut portem Christi mortem’, the ethereal soprano writing may suggest that all passion is spent. The second stanza of the section reverts to strong, exclamatory music but this proves to be something of an interruption. The music is indeed moving into quiet acceptance. ‘Christe, cum sit hinc exire’ begins to hint at calm. A very beautiful, highly expressive string passage leads to ‘Quando corpus morietur’. Now the choral writing is hushed and the music is humble and awestruck in tone. A serene solo violin takes over and then the high voices sing a series of ‘Amens’: you don’t actually realise when the work has ended and that, I think, is fitting.

This setting of the Stabat Mater is a stunning achievement. It’s certainly not a piece that’s comfortable to hear, nor should it be. This is a score that confronts the listener with the enormity of the events and the anguish of Christ’s mother forced to look on. I found that each time I listened I was rocked back on my heels. The music grabs you by the throat and never lets go and the impact is heightened by the intensity of the performance. It’s obvious that MacMillan’s music makes virtuoso demands on both the singers and the players but these artists meet this immense challenge head on and seem to leverage their performance off MacMillan’s music so as to give a visceral account of the work.

All of MacMillan’s music is highly personal in nature, most especially those works in which he addresses religious subjects. However, I think this piece has a particularly deep personal significance for it was written against the background of the tragic yet uplifting story of his young granddaughter, Sara Maria. She was born with profound disabilities and eventually died, aged five, not long after MacMillan finished the Stabat Mater. One can only imagine the anguish that little Sara’s condition and her prognosis brought to the family. Yet it’s clear from a very moving eulogy - which can be read here - that the composer delivered at her funeral that she also brought her family great joy during her brief life. Perhaps that, allied to MacMillan’s faith, explains why despite all the harrowing music we hear in this work, passages of great beauty break through like rays of light and at the end there is calm acceptance. I have appended to the end of this review a link to James MacMillan’s eulogy for his granddaughter because reading it may heighten your appreciation of this piece.

Even though I am sure there is much more in this Stabat Mater than I have yet discerned I am already confident that it is a masterpiece. It should be heard by anyone who values eloquent contemporary music.

John Quinn



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